Gregor Gall: Labour must recapture common touch

Policies promoted by the Jimmy Reid Foundation provide Johann Lamont with a starting point writes Gregor Gall

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: PA
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: PA

In the hubbub of the debate about choosing independence or maintaining the status quo, the political direction of the Scottish Labour Party seems to have been rather overlooked. This is a critical oversight because if – as the polls currently suggest – the referendum will be lost by the pro-independence forces, the biggest victor and beneficiary will be Scottish Labour.

Should this happen, Labour will not only be back in a commanding political position, as it was before 2007, but what it does and says will really matter in a way that has not been true for many years.

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The crucial components for assessing what this could mean are the leadership of Johann Lamont, the policy direction of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission and the political influence of the British Labour Party.

And now, following the organisational changes after Scottish Labour’s rout in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2011, the Scottish Labour Party has a more fulsome form of autonomy from its sister party south of the Border and Ms Lamont is no longer just the leader of Scottish Labour in the Parliament but also Labour leader throughout Scotland

Instead of tail ending the offering of “British solutions to British problems” as she has done so far, Ms Lamont and Scottish Labour could remember what the rubric of their predecessors like Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell was about, namely, providing “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems”.

To use another phrase of old, Lamont could establish some “clear red water” between Labour in Holyrood and Labour in Westminster. In 2002, then Welsh Labour leader, Rhodri Morgan, coined the phrase “clear red water” and this was possible both under an Assembly without the powers of a (devolved) parliament and under an organisational framework of Welsh Labour still being part of British Labour. Ms Lamont does not face the same constraints and, therefore, could open up some “clear red water” of her own.

But this would mean moving away from her current political centre of gravity, as well as thinking outside her comfort box. The most obvious way to go would be to examine the Common Weal political initiative of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, based upon the political philosophy of mutuality, equality and solidarity.

Because the Common Weal is about the examining the principles that flow from the underlying philosophy and envisioning what this would look like when applied in practice to Scotland (as opposed to replicating any particular measures found in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), Ms Lamont and Scottish Labour have the luxury of putting their own stamp and interpretation on it.

Could this happen? Ms Lamont was the left-wing candidate in the election for Scottish Labour leader in late 2011 but she has not covered herself in glory with her now infamous “ending the something for nothing culture” speech of September 2012. Whether this was a frontal attack on the principle of universalism or a misguided attempt to begin a debate on current provision of welfare benefits, it was not what was expected from Ms Lamont. So the prospect of a necessary move to the left that would allow engaging with the Common Weal would not seem to be much of a starter as a result of her own political predilections.

This tendency is all the more reinforced by the influence of the British Labour Party under Mr Miliband and Mr Balls. The party’s response to Mr Osborne’s recent spending review and Mr Miliband’s “getting tough on welfare” speech of early last month showed Labour is too afraid to challenge the Tories. Neither gave much encouragement to kicking against the prevailing Tory orthodoxy or laying out a progressive alternative to it.

Moreover, the Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission seems, so far, to be more concerned with discussing the means of enhanced devolution and not what social ends they should be used for (as was the case with Labour’s support for the Calman Commission’s conclusions).

But could – irony of ironies – the SNP prove to be saviour for Ms Lamont and Labour in Scotland? Currently, the Common Weal is experiencing a growing level of support amongst the lower echelons of the SNP – and Nicola Sturgeon is known to sympathetic. Now former minster Jim Mather, a known right winger, has come out in support after re-assessing his perspective on the economic crash of 2007 onwards.

So it could be that the dynamics of party political competition take Lamont and Scottish Labour in an unexpected but welcome direction? The now conventional political strategy of triangulation has taken Labour in the direction of the Tories but, in the Scottish context, there is no reason to think that the SNP could not pull Labour to the political left.

Ultimately, this could be an unforeseen triumph for Ms Lamont and Scottish Labour because with one fell swoop, they could re-establish the basis for Labour in Scotland being the “people’s party”, increase their much-diminished stature and support, and make a convincing basis to their claim to offer an alternative to the SNP’s independence vision with enhanced devolution.

So far, what will happen after a No vote is unclear. Labour has a chance with the Common Weal to put flesh on the bones of what Scotland could look like after 2014 while remaining within the Union.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and a resident of Edinburgh